[b]Artist Dmitry Strukov depicts original Yevfrosiniya Polotskaya Cross which disappeared during WWII[/b]The ways of God are inscrutable. A century and a half ago, the ‘Arkhyz face’ cliff fresco was discovered — probably the oldest depiction of Jesus Christ in Eastern Europe, being created a thousand years ago by an unknown painter who used ‘3D technology’. Located in Russia’s Karachay-Cherkess Republic, in the mid-19th century, it was copied by artist Dmitry Strukov — known for his watercolour paintings of Belarusian saints (most of which are no longer with us). He painted a picture of the original Yevfrosiniya Polotskaya Cross — Belarus’ most significant relic. According to one legend, the fresco was created by divine force.
The ways of God are inscrutable. A century and a half ago, the ‘Arkhyz face’ cliff fresco was discovered — probably the oldest depiction of Jesus Christ in Eastern Europe, being created a thousand years ago by an unknown painter who used ‘3D technology’. Located in Russia’s Karachay-Cherkess Republic, in the mid-19th century, it was copied by artist Dmitry Strukov — known for his watercolour paintings of Belarusian saints (most of which are no longer with us). He painted a picture of the original Yevfrosiniya Polotskaya Cross — Belarus’ most significant relic.
According to one legend, the fresco was created by divine force. Another tale states that, in fact, Dmitry Strukov painted it during his travels through the Caucasus (a story which proves how greatly his work is revered). The Director of the State Karachay-Cherkess Historical-Cultural and Natural Museum-Reserve, Umar Elkanov, confirms that Mr. Strukov copied sacred frescoes from the Arkhyz valley. He explains the authenticity of the ancient works, saying, “If it was he who drew this face on the cliff, then local monks would have known many years ago. Moreover, the paints are about a thousand years old, rather than a mere century year old.”
Our knowledge of many Belarusian relics comes from Mr. Strukov’s paintings. He found Belarus just as appealing as Caucasus, arriving here from Moscow in the 1860s. He aimed to paint treasures dating from the Kiev Rus and Grand Duchy of Lithuania era and even found time to draw Catholic and Protestant relics. He represented the whole palette of Belarusian art — little known beyond its borders at the time. Belarus was part of Russia, named North-Western Region. Despite its dull name, the country boasted an ancient and spiritually rich culture, which Mr. Strukov succeeded in revealing.
At that time, the art of photography was in its infancy, so the artist was relied upon to portray the beauty of local architecture and relics. Sadly, no album featuring his works was published in his own time. However, a recent edition has been released with a modest circulation of 1,800 copies, by Petrus Brovka Belarusian Encyclopaedia Publishing House.
Scientists continue to study Mr. Strukov’s role in saving Belarusian artefacts, as Inessa Slyunkova explains. As a doctor of architecture and a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Architecture and Construction Sciences, she believes the album’s distribution is the most important cultural event of 2011. “This book is an artistic chronicle of Belarus’ historical-cultural legacy, created by talented master Dmitry Strukov. He was an artist with the Kremlin’s Armoury, going on an adventurous expedition to study rarities not only in Belarus but also in neighbouring Lithuania and Latvia,” she stresses.
Sharing Dmitry Strukov’s wonderful work with the readers of our Belarus magazine, we are also keen to tell you about his journal, which he kept as he travelled through our country, sketching various sites. These unique ‘travel notes’ are now published — 150 years on.
The city is rich in legends and stories. Many Orthodox churches once existed, although few now remain. St. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral is thought to have been built on the foundations of the much older Holy Spirit Cathedral (restored to house the Verkhny Gorod — Upper Town — Concert Hall in September 2011, opposite the Town Hall).
Two of its ancient icons remain with us today, one in early 17th century style and the other depicting the Virgin Mary, inscribed: ‘This icon of the Mother of God, with baby Jesus in her arms, was brought by the Grand Duke of the Russian lands — St. Vladimir — to Kiev’s Desyatinnaya Church. After Kiev’s destruction by Tatars, it was found in the River Svisloch in Minsk on August 13th, 1500. It was then taken to the Castle Church before being later moved to the Cathedral in 1852. Orthodox believers donated a new silver vestment’. The icon is now kept at the Holy Spirit Cathedral.
The vestry houses other wonderful articles — including two crosses: one golden and one in stunning silver gilt. Meanwhile, residents of the city and suburbs say that underground tunnels connect the Roman Catholic churches. Five years ago, holes were discovered in the courtyard of the Governor’s house (now housing the Belarusian State Music Academy in Svobody Square) which were found to reveal a corridor deep enough to allow even a tall man to hardly touch the ceiling.
Ancient St. Yekaterina’s Church (now known as St. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral) was built in 1611, with some vaulting added in the 17th century and some bricks in the 18th century — creating two major reconstructions.
St. Trinity Monastery was situated on Troitskaya Hill — where the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre now stands. Fragments of walls and foundations are still visible along the river bank, alongside some human bones. Around the ‘white church’, it is very picturesque. Legend tells us that many vaults and tunnels exist not far from the seminary.
This was a large town in ancient times, with many churches and monasteries. Today, the foundations of three churches remain. Nun Rogneda (the first Belarusian woman to be recorded in manuscripts) lived at the monastery in the 10th century and was buried there.
Nearby Zamok Hill boasts the foundations of an ancient castle. Just one kilometre away, there is evidence of a cemetery — perhaps for burial of wealthy people, or of those who once inhabited the monastery.
The city is situated on two rivers — the Dvina and the Polota — with a castle between. Eighteenth century stone Sophia Cathedral is found nearby, with the lower sections of an ancient stone church preserved beneath its floor. One of its paintings features the legs and hands of saints and the site now houses an Archaeological Museum boasting 11th century fragments of paintings. The cathedral’s altar is beautifully adorned while the vestry houses gorgeous gilt-embroidered ecclesiastical attire from the 15th-16th century. Other impressive artefacts include hand-written books, the Gospel and a 1661 silver cross.
The St. Yevrosiniya Cross is kept at Saviour Convent, in a cell in the choir loft, where the saint (who founded the church in the 12th century) lived and slept.
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Although Mr. Strukov had letters of transmittal from Moscow, he was not allowed to enter every church and palace where artefacts from the past were held. In addition, the weather sometimes hampered him from reaching remote settlements; he continued to travel through winter and summer. Mr. Strukov visited only Belarus’ eastern territories but, several years later, world known artist Napoleon Orda (also a musician and Chopin’s associate) explored the country’s western lands. Owing to these two artists, knowledge of our thousand year old cultural heritage from our ancient monasteries and princely residences survives.
Tourists still arrive in Belarus in search of our cultural jewels, following in the footsteps of Mr. Strukov and Mr. Orda. Yevrosiniya Polotskaya’s Cross — which disappeared in 1941 — has been copied by Brest master Nikolay Kuzmich, attracting pilgrims to Polotsk, who are eager to pay tribute to the saint. In turn, Minsk is home to the icon of the Mother of God so admired by Mr. Strukov; pilgrims continue to arrive to light candles before it. Looking at his paintings, we journey back 150 years to a time when these original treasures were just as priceless as they are today.
By Viktar Korbut